'Social Marketing' Brings Moral Messages Home

Article excerpt

Your child is cheating at school and you don't have a clue. Or perhaps you are blissfully unaware that your teenager, the one headed to college soon, already likes to get drunk.

Not to worry. Madison Avenue is riding to the rescue with advertising campaigns aimed at changing high school and college- student behavior - and aiding the parenting-challenged, too.

Social marketing, as it is called, uses commercial advertising techniques to "sell" positive behavior. Fastening seat belts, just saying "no" to drugs, and not letting "friends drive drunk" are familiar pitches.

Until recently, though, few social-marketing campaigns were explicitly aimed at students or education problems. But with cheating, drinking, and violence emerging at school and on campus, these issues are now in the cross hairs of advertising executives and educators.

"Unfortunately, it's often easier for a teacher not to confront a student, and some parents are neglectful about their children's progress in school," says Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal Inc., an advertising agency in New York specializing in youth and family. "There's a need for social marketing to step up to the plate."

And it is. In coming weeks, a new national television ad campaign will try to curb cheating that some experts say is rampant in the nation's junior highs and high schools.

Also, this month a big campaign sponsored by 113 colleges and universities placed full-page ads in national newspapers. The ads depicted a beer bottle labeled "Binge Beer" - a metaphor for the mayhem that drunkenness is causing on college campuses across the United States.

"Who says falling off a balcony is such a bad thing," reads the anti-drunkenness ad. "And what's an occasional riot? Or even a little assault between friends? Thousands of college students across the country have already discovered "Binge Beer." And this year, thousands more will try it.

"Don't think that's a good idea?" the ad continues. "Neither do we, but we need your help in convincing our students of the dangers."

The pitch is directed at parents of high school students - rather than those in college today.

Colleges join forces

Graham Spanier is president of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He came up with the idea for colleges to band together to publicize the problem, and says parents need to understand that "an 18-year-old who arrives at a university today may already be an experienced binge drinker."

To be sure, Penn State and other schools involved in the campaign are supplementing that message with campus-based media campaigns and expanded social activities.

Yet some observers warn of pitfalls the campaign could face.

"They're going to have a huge uphill battle to register a change in student attitude," says Steve Dnistrian, executive vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a New York-based nonprofit coalition.

"The alcohol industry spends $1 billion a year on marketing and promotion," he says. "If that's your competition, and if you want to persuade one teen and his parents that binge drinking is a bad idea . …